BEVERLY, Mass. — As one official after another stood up to praise him, Fred Butler was ready with the occasional comment.
“I voted for you,” he told Beverly, Mass. Mayor Bill Scanlon.
“I remember when you played football,” he said to Beverly High School Principal Sean Gallagher.
At 106, Butler doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. But his bantering showed that even at his age, his mind is sharp enough to merit the honor he was finally given yesterday.
Butler, the city’s oldest resident, was presented with an honorary high school diploma in a ceremony in the Beverly High School library.
Sitting in a wheelchair, his winter coat still on over a buttoned-up sweater, Butler appeared to be overcome by emotion when School Committee President Maria Decker handed him his diploma and the audience of about 100 family members, officials and students gave him a standing ovation.
“I thank everybody who is responsible for this,” he said. “I certainly appreciate it.”
Butler, who was born in 1906, dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work full time in a printing shop to help support his mother and five siblings.
He went on to lead a good life, raising five children with his wife of 65 years, getting drafted into World War II at age 35 and working for the Beverly water department. But family members said he always regretted never earning his diploma.
“It never slowed him down or stopped him, but it prompted him to always send the message to his children and grandchildren of the importance of education,” daughter-in-law Cathy Butler said. “The first thing he always asks is, ‘How’d you do in school today?’”
His grandson, Mike Calabro, recalled looking forward to the $5 he would get from his grandfather for every A on his report card.
When Fred’s wife, Ruth, died last September, family members decided to boost his spirits by pursuing the idea of an honorary diploma. Cathy Butler contacted City Council President Paul Guanci, who got the process under way and served as master of ceremonies.
“We just thought it was time,” granddaughter Beth Calabro said. “Let’s do it now before it’s too late.”
Family members described Butler as humble, hardworking and honest. As a seventh- and eighth-grader, he would work at the print shop in the morning and go to school in the afternoon. Guy Calabro, his son-in-law, said Butler dug underground trenches with a shovel in the days before the water department had more advanced equipment.
Beth Calabro recalled the day when Butler cashed his paycheck and realized the teller had given him too much money. He went back into the bank to return the money, prompting the stunned teller to give him a box of chocolates.
“He’s a man of faith,” Beth Calabro said. “He prayed on his knees until he was no longer able to do so.”
“It’s a long time to wait for your diploma,” Scanlon said, “but you’ve obviously earned it very well.”